What's new in Italy for 2018
Italy bubbles with emotion, corruption, traffic jams, strikes, religious holidays and crowds. Irate ranters shake their fists at each other one minute and walk arm-in-arm the next. It's bella chaos, and if you're up-to-date on your sightseeing and transit info, you'll love it. Here's the latest, gleaned from research done for the 2018 edition of my Italy guidebook, to help you enjoy Europe's richest, craziest culture.
Rome has been improving its tourist infrastructure and offerings. Two new sound-and-light shows in the Trajan's Forum area are an increasingly popular evening activity: the Caesar's Forum Stroll and the Forum of Augustus Show. Both help you imagine the world of the Caesars, as colorful images are projected on ancient walls, columns and porticos while English narration brings the story to life. And Ara Com'era ("The Ara as it was") is a new 45-minute "virtual reality" show at Museo dell'Ara Pacis, which allows visitors to see what the Altar of Peace looked like in its day. The Pantheon, one of the city's best-preserved ancient monuments, which is currently free to enter, will start charging an entry fee (about $2) in May.
I still strongly recommend getting the Roma Pass, which is now a plastic card that covers sightseeing and transportation. Rome's main train station, Termini, has good new dining options: the modern Mercato Centrale market hall and the spacious Terrazza Termini food court.
It's now even more worthwhile to travel south, just beyond Naples, to Pompeii. The site's best-preserved home, the House of the Vettii, with its many surviving mosaics and frescoes, reopened after a long closure.
As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is a priority on any Italian itinerary. However, sightseers must deal with constant changes to ticketing and entry schemes. Travelers who want to view the Uffizi Gallery's amazing collection of Italian paintings will pay a significant price increase starting in 2018. Peak-season ticket prices (March through October) are up more than 50 percent to about $25; tickets drop to $15 in the winter. Seasonal pricing is also being introduced at the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. And for the first time, sightseers can buy a combination ticket covering all these sights. This three-day ticket gives travelers one-time priority entry to all three sights, and will cost about $45 in peak season (half that in winter).
For the past couple of years, reservations have been required to climb the Florence Duomo's famous dome, and time slots book up. If climbing the dome is a must for you, book online many days in advance of your arrival at www.museumflorence.com (if you wait until you arrive in town, it may be too late).
Visiting nearby Pisa is easier than ever with the opening of the new "Pisa Mover" train, which connects Pisa's airport and its train station in five minutes. Pisa's main tourist information office has moved to a convenient spot at the Field of Miracles, next to the Duomo's ticket office.
Visitors to San Gimignano, Italy's most overrated hill town, may be interested in a new option: gelato-making classes, offered by Sergio of Gelateria Dondoli in his kitchen down the street from his shop. Charismatic Sergio was a member of the Italian team that won the official Gelato World Cup -- and his gelato really is a cut above.
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Urban improvements are underway in bustling northern Italy. Arriving by train in Milan is more convenient now that high-speed Italo trains stop at Milano Centrale (instead of at the less-central Porta Garibaldi station). In Venice, a new shopping hot spot has opened amidst all the elegant decay. Located near the Rialto Bridge, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi luxury mall has great rooftop views of the enchanting city.
Cruise ships are now stopping in the port of La Spezia for their excursions to Florence. And, since this port puts them so close to the popular Cinque Terre region, thousands of cruisers are opting for excursions into this most spectacular stretch of the Italian Riviera. Consequently, the Cinque Terre is experiencing more congestion than ever. The hordes converge on its five tiny ports for the lovely hikes through the national park that connects them. While segments of the regional hike are invariably closed because of frequent washouts and landslides, there are always plenty of open hiking trails available in the nearby hills.
It's always smart to beware of thieves in any place with tourist crowds (in Italy and beyond), but now that the Cinque Terre's train stations are so often overcrowded, it's especially important to guard against fast-fingered pickpockets there.
Italy continues to be as exquisite -- and exasperating -- as ever. While it may seem as orderly as spilled spaghetti, the country actually functions quite well. If you have a positive attitude, equip yourself with good information and expect to travel smart, you will. Buon viaggio!